Chronic stress sends us into fight or flight mode, where the hormones cortisol and adrenaline flood our body, heart rate, breath and blood pressure increases and we get a surge of glucose into the bloodstream to use for energy. Blood flow moves to our extremities (our arms and legs) so that we can flee danger and away from the digestive system which is not considered necessary for immediate survival and actually takes a lot of energy to run.
This response is great if we need to escape a dangerous situation but not so great if simply stressed out about deadlines or finances. Lack of blood flow and therefore oxygen to the digestive system, slows function down which means, poor digestion, nutrient absorption and elimination, thus constipation.
Yoga can be a fabulous tool to unwind and detach from stress. In fact sixty minutes of yoga has been found to significantly increase gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels in the brain, aka “the chilled” amino acid. Gaba is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that works directly on the brain to calm the mind and enhance mood. It does this by regulating noradrenaline, dopamine and serotonin. GABA functions as a brake on the neural circuitry during stress and relaxes the muscles, slows heart rate, breathing and reduces anxiety, tension and insomnia.
What we eat influences our mood. To understand how food can enhance feelings of happiness and reduce stress, anxiety and depression let’s dive into the common drivers of poor mental health.
- Inflammation and oxidative stress;
- Hormone imbalance;
- Insulin resistance;
- Gut dysbiosis;
- Psychosocial - loneliness, life challenges/stress, lack of meaning and purpose;
- Mitochondrial dysfunction;
- Neuroplasticity and;
Most of us know that foods rich in B vitamins support the nervous system and reduce stress so the purpose of this article is to introduce you to other foods that nourish the mind that you may not have thought of.
- There is a communication system between the gut and brain, called the gut-brain axis. The vagus nerve at the centre of the axis connects the neurons in the gut with the brain.
- A healthy, diverse gut microbiome (gut flora) directly affects this communication and contributes to a happy, healthy mood.
- Many disorders of the mind and behaviour such as anxiety, depression, autism, and schizophrenia are influenced by the gut microbiome.
It Influences Mood By:
- Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity;
- Improving blood sugar balance;
- Helps break down toxins and improve absorption of nutrients from food;
- 90% of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut. Serotonin is responsible for a healthy mood, sense of calm, optimism, sleep, appetite and healthy gastric motility (bowel movements);
- Gut bacteria produce and respond to other chemicals that the brain uses which regulate sleep, stress and relaxation, such as melatonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine and GABA;
- Improving communication between nerve cells and;
- Improves the strength and health of intestinal walls, prevents leaky gut and reduces inflammation by maintaining the tight junctions between the cells in the lining of these walls.
- Probiotics are living bacteria that restore and renew our gut microbiome.
- Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium increase GABA in the gastrointestinal system and help decrease anxiety and stress.
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus helps lower the stress hormone cortisol.
- Lactobacillus pentosus from fermented cabbage (kimchi) improves mental function and BDNF production which is important for behaviour, learning and memory. Avoid pasteurized, store bought varieties and those made with added sugar.
- Good food sources of probiotics are kefir yoghurt, sauerkraut, fermented vegetables, kimchi, kombucha tea and apple cider vinegar.
- Onions contain flavonoids. Flavonoids are phytonutrients that enhance the function of GABA.
- Flavonoids are antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory activity. Inflammation and oxidative stress are characteristic traits of mental health disorders.
- Other plant based foods rich in flavonoids are nuts, seeds, fruits (berries, citrus fruits, apples, pears), most vegetables, herbs, spices, black and green tea, cocoa, wine, chamomile flowers, linden flowers and passionflower.
2. Tea (Green and Black)
- Contains theanine, an amino acid that increases GABA levels within the brain and alpha “relaxation” brain waves. Alpha brain waves slow down the heart rate and work as a bridge between the subconscious and conscious part of mind.
- Theanine increases dopamine, serotonin and glycine in the brain. These neurotransmitters are important for a healthy mood, pleasure, quality sleep and prevention and reduction of anxiety and depression.
3. Pu-erh Tea
- Pu-erh tea is a fermented tea originally from China. It contains GABA which has an anti- anxiety effect.
- Pu-erh protects the nervous system from excitotoxins. Excitotoxins overstimulate neuron receptors. Brain cells communicate with each other with the help of neuron receptors. When overstimulated they become exhausted, which can alter our mood, sleep and behaviour.
- Chamomile has clinically meaningful antidepressant and antianxiety activity.
- Contains volatile oils and flavonoids which have anti-inflammatory properties.
- Chamomile has a sedating effect which is due to the flavonoid apigenin and other compounds that bind to GABA receptors in the brain.
5. Lemon Balm
- Lemon balm increases GABA activity and decreases cortisol.
- Cortisol when raised can contribute to stress, anxiety, depression and poor sleep.
6. Wild Oily Fish
- Omega 3 has an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effect on brain tissue. Inflammation in the brain affects serotonin, dopamine, glutamate and gaba levels and contributes to oxidative stress.
- EPA/DHA and now docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), found in fish are important for brain health, protection and repair. DHA is known to be extremely important for the brain however EPA and DPA are anti-inflammatory, which is important for healthy brain function and mood as well.
- Omega-3 fish oil supplementation has been shown to reduce depression in as little as twenty one days. EPA and DHA play a role in serotonin production, release, and function in the brain. Low levels of EPA/DHA contribute to depression and brain dysfunction.
- EPA protects against nerve cell death and promotes nerve tissue growth in the hippocampus. A part of the brain responsible for happiness, decision making, learning and memory.
- Omega 3 is found in oily fish (herring, mackerel, sardines, salmon, anchovies), salmon fish oil and cod liver oil. You can also find omega 3 in walnuts, flaxseeds and hemp seeds.
7. Pumpkin Seeds
- Pumpkin seeds are a rich source of magnesium (Mg).
- Stress, whether it’s emotional, physical, environmental or biochemical deplete Mg levels in the body. Deficiency of Mg can lead to inflammation, insomnia, anxiety, poor memory and concentration.
- Low levels of Mg in the brain reduces serotonin. Magnesium is extremely beneficial to those with depression because of its ability to improve serotonin,melatonin and cortisol levels. As a supplement, it’s antidepressant action has been shown to be as effective as antidepressant drugs.
- Chronic stress affects the communication within our brain (brain circuitry) which can affect behaviour, mood, learning and memory. Mg improves this communication otherwise known as brain (synaptic) plasticity in the brain.
- Low magnesium levels can negatively affect blood sugar balance and our ability to use insulin effectively which leads to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance can affect mental health and contributes to depression.
- Magnesium can also be found in spinach, almonds, kefir, avocado, dark chocolate, banana, artichokes, seaweed, basil and coriander.
- Alcohol depletes magnesium levels in the brain so avoid regular alcohol intake when stressed.
8. Curries With Saffron And Turmeric
- Crocin a carotenoid found in saffron, has antidepressant properties due to its influence on serotonin production and its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, neuro-endocrine and neuroprotective effects.
- Saffron as a supplement is shown to be as effective as some antidepressants in the treatment of mild-moderate depression.
- Saffron improves insulin sensitivity and helps prevent insulin resistance.
- The brain has the ability to change throughout life. It does this by forming new connections between brain cells (neurons). This is important for behaviour, learning and memory and is called neuroplasticity. Depression affects neuroplasticity throughout the brain. Curcumin a natural compound found in turmeric has antidepressant like activity, protects neurons and improves neuroplasticity.
- Curcumin influences the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, helps balance our stress response (HPA axis), lowers inflammation, protects against oxidative stress, mitochondrial damage and leaky gut, all of which are compromised in depression.
- As a supplement Curcumin (BCM-95) is found to be more effective than conventional formulas.
What we eat has the power to send positive information from the gut to the brain which goes on to affect our mood and behaviour? Knowing this, wouldn’t it make sense to fuel the body with ingredients that stoke the fire of happiness?
I encourage you to send glorious information to that brain of yours and flood the body with those natural chemicals that you are designed to produce. Don’t forget what we eat is only ONE part of happiness creation.
Happiness is a collaboration of information you gather from movement, mindfulness, social interaction and connection to self.